Art concrete at UC Berkeley

I have occasion to walk through the UC Berkeley campus often, and there’s a lot there to see. Recently a subtle feature caught my eye at Morgan Hall, which is otherwise a pretty undistinguished building — this rich concrete screen that borders its brick courtyard.

It does a lot of work in a discreet way.

The ten panels of rugged dark concrete, identical but alternately rotated, are laid out like a Japanese folding screen. They form an effective barrier, but the visual impression is of lightness and transparency. Two small accent panels of polished colored concrete individuate each frame. Rounded benches on the inside invite a closer visit.

The eucalyptus trees in the courtyard offer organic forms that play off the surrounding hardscape, and the accent panels reward close inspection on a sunny day. They aren’t run-of-the-mill gravel. The colors are precise.

The brisk grain boundaries and crisp polished faces, one random and the other geometric, tease and please the eye.

The blends of clasts and matrix are tightly controlled.

And what is it about that dark gray framing? Look close in good light.

Not only is it sprinkled with light grains accentuating its darkness, but the dark rock is shot with color, the deep green and blue glimmer of pyroxene minerals and serpentine. A real artist made this. I wish I knew who it was.

Two women named Morgan left their mark in Berkeley. Agnes Fay Morgan (1884-1968) was a pioneering scientist in the field of nutrition who during a long career at UC Berkeley (1915-1954) rose to the head of its College of Home Economics. (The other one was Julia, the architect.) She was widely celebrated as a founder of nutritional chemistry and a person of influence. The Berkeley Chemistry Department recalls that “Dr. Morgan’s teaching was characterized by enthusiasm for her subject, clarity, and a seemingly boundless energy. She had a sublime confidence in her rightness and a genius for disregarding nonessentials and relaxing when the opportunity presented itself.” Morgan Hall, built in 1953, was renamed in her honor in 1961. I can’t help but think that Dr. Morgan indirectly influenced my own mother, who earned a Home Ec degree from Cornell University, another progressive school, in the early 1940s and put it to full use raising and nourishing six children.

2 Responses to “Art concrete at UC Berkeley”

  1. Cate Freyer Says:

    Once again, thank you for bringing the details around us to life! Thank you!!

  2. Arleen Feng Says:

    UCB library lists Spencer & Ambrose as architects for the Home Economic Building, now Morgan Hall (built 1953). The firm is still active under a different name, though that isn’t one of the past projects they choose to highlight at http://spencerassoc.com/educational.html – understandable since I’d agree it’s pretty undistinguished. Perhaps the patio screen was the only decorative element allowed in the budget.

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